The weight on Judith’s shoulders grew with each passing minute. Where she had once welcomed the opportunity for an afternoon coffee, a sense of dread and doom settled in its place. Motives and agendas were things that belonged in a romance novel or murder mystery, not relationships. Judith couldn’t imagine the words coming out of Corinne’s mouth. The words echoed in her head, reverberating into her stomach. Judith dropped the toast on her plate. Pressing the pad of her middle finger onto the top of her nose, Judith focused on breathing.

Peeking her right eye open, Judith focused on the clock. 6:18 AM, it read. Swallowing her last inhale a small sense of calm ran over her. There wasn’t enough time for this shit. Unless she planned on throwing up her breakfast, leaving it to sit and dry over the long weekend, Judith had to quiet her mind enough to finish getting ready and out the door before 6:30. Judith stood, sliding back her chair, and stretched toward the ceiling. No time to seeth, process, or panic. Just do.

Judith pulled her jeans up, and adjusted her bra before grabbing her plate. Underneath the mountain of breakfast potatoes smothered in cheese and yoke, the partially eaten toast jutting out like a crashed spaceship, was a cuddly Christmas bear painted happily onto her plate. Good things polar bears like the cold, she thought as she slid her half-eaten breakfast into the fridge.

Moments later Judith was in the bathroom. Judith turned on the radio throwing herself into the music. Attempting to sing words she barely knew the words to with her toothbrush dangling from her mouth, Judith felt her shoulders release for the first time all morning. After spitting out the last of the minty fresh goop she splashed some water onto her face, breathing through the towel as she buried her face to dry it. At the end of the day it would all work out. Whether or not it was the way she hoped was a different story, but the truth of it lightened Judith’s steps as she bolted through the hallway. Lifting her grey turtleneck sweater, the one with the seventies pattern across the chest, Judith jammed it over her head as she slipped on her canvas sneakers.

The night nurse was finishing her rounds as Judith headed into the building. Over the past few days of her assignment, Judith had come to know the staff at Worthington Recuperative and Restorative Facility quite well. Alyson flashed a quick smile and a hand gesture that resembled a firearm before disappearing into Dame Madame Madame’s room. The only more pretentious than the name of the plastic surgery hospital was its patients. The youngest patient Judith had seen was 44. About to be 45, still vying for her big break, was celebrating a 20th wedding anniversary to her movie producer husband. She had come for a few nips, a few tucks, and a shitton of injections to look her best.

Judith headed down the hall and swiped her badge into the nurse’s break room. Her own temporary office was a private offshoot of the main break room. There were four total. Of the ten nurses total, Judith had grown closest to Alyson, the 35 year old night nurse, who was getting ready for her own wedding that summer. After putting in her years at a cancer-focused hospital, Alyson had seen it all. Through a few well made connections along with her charming, flirtatious personality, Alyson had gotten her position at WR&RF a few months back. While the work itself was relatively routine and somewhat boring, a strong stomach was needed to cater to the patient. Alyson certainly had a strong stomach.

The computer whirled to life as Judith took her coat into the main break room to hang it up. It had barely touched the hook as Alyson walked in. “Breakfast,” she asked nodding toward the door. “Not today,” Judith said. Alyson lifted an eyebrow as Judith’s shoulders hovered by her ears. Her sense of tension and nausea had come back almost instantly. A pang shot through Judith’s heart, she hoped breakfast wasn’t permanently ruined for her.

“Any symptoms? Issues?”

Judith shook her head, then quietly added, “well…”

Alyson walked closer. Her white shoes squeaking with each step.

“It’s just,” Judith’s voice broke. As she spoke the once technicolor world she lived in and loved feel to a kaleidoscope of terror.

“What a bitch,” Alyson spat out as she refilled the coffee. “She said that?”

Judith nodded.

“And to your -,”

“Yup,” Judith said wrapping her hands around her coffee mug.

Alyson made a guttural sound, one that sounded like it had come from a patient at her old job. “So what are you going to do?”

“Nothing,” Judith said flatly, “nothing yet at least. There’s time, before we cross that bridge. If anything I figure she’ll end up pushing him into a corner and then there will be something to do.”

Alyson mulled this over in her head. Swishing her coffee back and forth like mouthwash, it was as though she was literally chewing over an idea. “Want to kill her?”

Judith looked up and smiled. “Not yet,” she laughed.

Alyson threw her shoulder up, “just figured I’d ask.”

They women broke into laughter. They hadn’t been friends for very long, but their connection had been almost immediate. Alyson had taken a keen interest in Judith’s writing, both professionally in her magazine review of WR&RF, and in the handful of novels Judith had authored. Judith had been blessed with an editor at their magazine who saw the potential in her newest writer. If it hadn’t been for Maggie, Judith probably wouldn’t be able to do research for her newest novel while tackling an exposé piece.

Alyson looked at her watch, “speaking of murder, would it kill Mary to be on time?” As if on cue the sound of Mary’s squeaking shoes grew closer. In seconds Alyson was up, bundled, and waiting for Mary to swipe into the break room to punch in.

“Sorry Alyson, I’m so -”

Alyson’s porcelain hand commanded silence from Mary, stopping her mid apology. “You’re always sorry, and then you’re still always late.”

Mary’s rosy complexion flared red. For a moment she studied her feet. Alyson punched out, turned on her heel and walked back over to Judith. Mary stood motionless, still memorizing the image of her shoes. Wrapping her arms around Judith, she gave her a squeeze. “Text me if you need me,” Alyson said as she pulled away. Standing in the doorway she looked over her shoulder adding, “unless you think a phone call would be better.” Alyson winked, leaving the door to close behind her. The door clicked and Mary unfroze. Looking up in almost a panic her eyes pleaded with Judith.

“It’s okay, Mary. You know how she is,” Judith said standing up, “She really is looking out for you. It’s not good for you to be late so often. Shake it off, and do your best today.”

Mary’s face lit up, “you’re probably right. But it still sucks, you know. Thanks, Judith!”

Once again the pit in Judith’s stomach, dug back under. Like a perennial plant, it deeply embedding itself to stay buried, until the temperatures rose and it could once more rear its ugly head.

“I’ll do morning rounds, and then come back to get you for mid-morning activities,” Mary asked?

“Sounds good to me,” Judith said with a smile.

Walking back into her office Judith thought about her conversation with Alyson. While she certainly didn’t plan on committing murder in real life, it did make for an interesting plot point. Grabbing her notebook, Judith folded herself into her computer chair. Within minutes she had the story mapped out. A woman, transformed by unexpected wealth and an unplanned baby, from a young bad ass beauty to an older, weathered woman. Happy but bittered by circumstance. Dripping in money and self-pity, surgery after surgery to carve back the youth she once bestowed. Dame Madame Madame in essence, unlimited wealth, the biggest suite, the biggest secret to hide. How did she get there? Was it by choice or by blackmail? Was it a tired, resentful son or a daughter-in-law pushed too far? Who will take their last breath?

Judith felt the presence of someone behind her, jumping out of her chair her pen flew in the air as she landed on the floor.

“JUDITH!!!”

Startled, Judith looked over her shoulder to find Mary rushing toward her. Laughter bubbled up and took over.

“Are you okay?”

Mary reached out to help Judith up from the floor.

“Yes,” Judith said composing herself, “I’m sorry – I just, you just startled me.”

“I’m terribly sorry,” Mary cried out.

“It’s okay,” Judith said, “I’m okay.”

“Oh good,” Mary said, “I had called your name a few times but you were -”

“I was writing,” Judith finished for her, “it’s okay. Is it already time for morning activities?”

“It is, and Dame Madame Madame specifically asked if you would be there. I think she just finished one of your novels or something.”

“Terrific,” Judith said, “I was hoping I would get to finally meet her before my time here was up.”

As Judith brushed herself off she saw her phone light up on her desk.

“I’ll be right there,” she said to Mary, “just have to take this call.”

Mary nodded as she made her way toward the hallway.

“Hello Bill,” Judith said answering the phone. As she and Bill chatted, Judith picked up her notepad. For a moment she tuned out, thinking about the secret. Something inconsequential, but the callous way it had been delivered was enough to ruin everything. Looking down at her notes, Judith refocused the kaleidoscope around her. A new story, a conversation pending with WR&RF’s most exclusive patient. Judith’s shoulders rested, no longer hunched over or pulled up with tension. “Bill, honey, that’s wonderful. I’m about to meet with DMM, hopefully she can crack the code on the founders Wadsworth Radcliff and Radcliff Fabel.”
“Good luck, babes,” Bill shouted into the phone, “I love you! Let me know how it goes.”

“I love you too! Bye!”

Hanging up the phone Judith snapped a picture of her messy notes and opened an email to Maggie. Keeping herself on blind copy, Judith wrote a short note and attached the picture. Before hitting send, she added a PS. underneath her signature, “meeting with DMM now… will keep you posted, as long as I survive ;)”

Judith laughed at her own joke and made her way to the activities room. A lens of focus in front of her Judith was determined to break this story, and unburden herself of her knowledge. She loved Bill and whatever happened with this story, or her novel, or the secrets looming in the bay, Judith was ready to tackle them one letter at a time.

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